My Childhood and '90s Bollywood

I feel nostalgia is the most elusive emotion, more than love. It fools me, makes me feel "those" were the best days of my life, and keeps me discontent with the present. I believe I am wired to either live in the past or the future. I also realize it to a reasonable extent, but just like finding God or true love, I keep attending spiritual discourses for miracles to happen - to be able to live in the present.

In the first week of January, on a high dose of writing-induced adrenaline rush, I ended up inviting friends, family, and personal connections on LinkedIn, to commit to a writing club. It is a lovely group of 18 members encouraging each other. We shall write on common themes this year. January's prompt is childhood memories. Here is a sneak peek into my memories.

I was born in the late eighties in Amritsar, Punjab. Due to my father's job at a University, we shifted to Jalandhar, where I grew up. My memories of Punjab from the 1990s are beautifully etched into my fully occupied adult brain. These memories reside as light, flowy, colorful splashes amid heavy, dense, black-and-white patches of life experiences. My life revolved around family, friends, and food. For entertainment, we played games, watched television, and visited movie theatres.

One of my most vivid memories is watching movies in theatres. We prepared to go to the movies; just like families prepare for festivals. To begin with, we did not go to watch every movie. The selection was a significant decision, driven by emotional, social, and economic factors. The movie either had to be blockbuster of the year, a Sunny Deol starrer or thematically aligned to middle-class aspirations of the '90s. Second, a suitable day to watch the movie was decided. Someone from the family had to visit and check if tickets were available; we usually skipped the first few weeks after release to avoid the rush. Third, choices were made for the clothes to be worn and the snacks to be packed. There wasn't any check, one could cook and carry food to the theatre. Families chose to save money even if it meant extra work; kids had no idea that this could be an embarrassment and cinema halls weren't too commercialized. Times and expectations were simpler!

When I first ever saw a movie, I was stunned by the experience. The darkness of the theatre, the sound system (which wasn't very good), and the huge screen - it was mesmerizing. I was young, naive, and impressionable. There was no internet to search or validate information, so, I believed what Bollywood of the '90s showed me.

The first movie I ever saw, when I was 8 years old, in a fully packed theatre was Hum Aaapke Hain Kaun - the saga of a super-duper, big Indian family that spent most time attending or organizing weddings. It had a very strong impact on me, and I started looking forward to finding my Prem (played by Salman Khan) at a wedding. I was sure I would meet him soon but in vain. The next year, in 1996, I saw Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ) in the theatre. I was stunned again. By that time, I was tired of looking for my man at weddings and DDLJ shifted my focus. I started believing in a different story and looking for my Raj (played by Shahrukh Khan) - a cute-looking, rich guy that my father would hate! It is another matter I realized later that Raj failed in college, stalked Simran (played by Kajol), and made her uncomfortable. But it did not matter because Raj was the protagonist - the hero! I longed to find my Raj and looked for him at family gatherings, social circles, and visits to the market. Sad, I did not find him.

Interestingly, the next blockbusters were Raja Hindustani and Kuchh Kuchh Hota Hai. The former shifted the narrative and convinced me that my dream man could be anywhere - he could be my driver; only that he must be fair and conventionally good-looking. The latter made me believe that I must have a boy "best friend" because love is friendship. It also indicated that I must give up my short hair, jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers and transform into an ultra-feminine saree-wearing avatar if I wanted my best friend to turn into my boyfriend. Such stories were told year after year, with few changes here and there, and amid all these larger-than-life narratives, I grew up to realize that there is much more to life than finding a man.

For heaven's sake, it is a relief that our stories have evolved, our characters have emerged and our narratives have gone beyond the cliches and stereotypes created by Bollywood. It is not anyone's fault, but I will never forget the impression these movies had on my little heart. I believed in these characters. The perspective was so limited; I grew up believing that one is a failure if one's first love remains unfulfilled. What a pity! If I had a time machine, I would go back in time and un-watch the movies I grew up with!

Our films, dramas, songs, and stories impact human lives and are impacted by these lives. When I see extreme violence in a series these days, I slightly shudder. These creations deeply impact the young. If I were a creator, I would think several times before creating something that I wouldn't want my child to see. Honestly, it is not about freedom of expression, it is about choosing because my impact is so deep that it can affect someone's childhood and several years to follow. Cheers to those who understand that it is about making the choice because my audience loves me, and there is no emotion more profound than love - whether first or second or third or the last!

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Assistant Professor, Malaviya National Institute of Technology Jaipur. PhD, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee.